CUSTER — His grandpa and uncle put some bragging-sized big-game heads on the walls of Top Pin Archery, but Gunner Prior is aiming at other trophies.
“I hunt targets,” the 16-year-old junior at Custer High School says with a grin.
Sometimes those targets are a metal hoops 10 feet off the hardwood, when he’s playing basketball for the Custer High School Wildcats. And other times those targets are 4 ¼-inch-diameter holes cut into grass greens, when he’s swinging a club for the Wildcats’ golf team.
But for our purposes here, the target is 20 yards away and the sweet spot — or bullseye — is about the size of an apricot, with rings of declining point value going out from there.
And in that “hunt,” Gunner Prior has been accurate enough to bring home trophies from archery competitions at the state, Midwestern and national levels. He has multiple titles at the National Field Archery Association National Indoor National Championships, the most recent in March in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Gunner shoots a traditional recurve bow without sights, which is referred to as a barebow archery. It’s about as a fundamental a form of archery as it gets, which is what he likes about it.
He doesn’t mind the extra challenge, either.
Gunner has shot with more popular compound bows, where cables and pulleys offer a mechanical advantage to the shooter, making it easier to hold at full draw before the shot. Sights, or scopes, and release-assist devices can also help make a shot more accurate.
That’s fun shooting, too, Gunner says. And he enjoyed target shooting with compound bows when he did it. He even won a national title that way when he was younger.
But he was drawn back to the recurve and its basic challenges and rewards.
“I’ve always shot barebow, other than when I was a younger kid, and I’ve always liked shooting barebow,” he says. “It seems like everybody has switched to release and compound, so I just like to shoot things that other people don’t normally shoot.”
No sight. No release. No pulleys and cables. And no easy job holding the bow steady when it’s at full draw and Gunner is focusing on the target. Which is why, in his shooting rhythm, he only holds steady there for about two seconds before releasing the arrow toward the target.
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“I’ve just gotten that down so it’s sort of instinctive,” he says.
It’s instinct magnified by repetitive discipline and strength. Discipline is no problem. Since he is slender, Gunner works on his strength through some weight training, to help him hold steady for those two seconds or so before the shot.
Gunner’s a young guy but an experienced archer. He started targeting shooting when he was 2 ½ years old under the coaching of his grandfather, Tom May, who started Top Pin Archery with his wife, Loyce, in 2001. Tom was a serious bowhunter and not-so-serious target shooter, but he inspired Gunner to take up the target challenge.
After Tom died in 2011, son Matt May, an exceptional bowhunter himself, and Loyce continued to work with Gunner. And Loyce takes her coaching beyond her grandson, working with seven or eight kids through the summer and 10 or 15 during the indoor archery season from September through April.
She also takes them to state, Midwest and national competitions when they’re ready. Top Pin archers have taken five national titles, three of them by Gunner. But they’ve also had silver-medal winners and other awards.
Given his family genes. He had a genetic head start in competitive archery, but after that it required work and discipline.
“You need a certain innate ability,” Loyce says. “But you also need a stick-to-it attitude.”
Clearly, Gunner Prior has that, along with the mental toughness required to face the pressure of competition while still keeping the nature of the game in perspective.
I’m really proud of him. He has a lot of character,” Loyce says. “Win, lose or draw he’s the first to shake the opponent’s hand.”
Gunner says he gets a lot more from archery than the occasional trophy.
“Archery can teach you a lot,” he says. “It teaches you how to keep it together when you’re up there on the line shooting against other people. And I think it builds character.”
Which is the most important target of all.